Thursday, July 27, 2017

IN MY VIEW: American Lung Association Guilty of Public Health Malpractice

Yesterday, researchers from the University of California, San Diego published a landmark paper in the BMJ (British Medical Journal) which reported that for the first time in 15 years, the smoking cessation rate among adults in the U.S. has increased. The researchers tie this unprecedented increase in the smoking cessation rate to the availability of electronic cigarettes. The paper reports that the advent of electronic cigarettes was associated with a significant increase in the population smoking cessation rate. It also finds that smokers who use e-cigarettes are more likely to quit smoking than those who do not.

Combined with abundant existing research, the findings of this study make it clear that among adult smokers, electronic cigarettes have had a huge public health benefit. They have increased the number of quit attempts as well as the proportion of successful quit attempts. The reason for this is clear: many smokers have trouble quitting not simply because of nicotine addiction, but because of addiction to the physical, behavioral, and social aspects of smoking. None of these are addressed by existing FDA-approved cessation methods, but they are specifically addressed by e-cigarettes, which replace almost all aspects of the smoking experience other than the tar, smoke, and high levels of 60+ carcinogens and 10,000+ toxins.

It is also clear that smokers who are able to quit using e-cigarettes have greatly improved their health. Even dual users have improved their health, as lung disease risk drops with a decline in cigarette consumption, albeit not as much as quitting entirely. There is also a decline in cancer risk, although again, not as much as quitting altogether. (There is probably not a significant decline in heart disease risk among dual users).

One would think that public health groups would hail this study and, if making recommendations to smokers, advise them to quit any way they are able to, including with the use of e-cigarettes if that works for them. 

But no ... that's not the case with many health groups. One in particular -- the American Lung Association -- is still urging smokers not to quit using e-cigarettes. Instead, they are urging smokers to only use FDA-approved methods that are clearly not going to work for many smokers. And if you are one of those smokers, the American Lung Association would apparently rather that you continue smoking than try to quit by switching to vaping.

While many public health researchers affirmed the value of electronic cigarettes for many adult smokers, an article on the new study in the San Diego Union-Tribune quoted the American Lung Association as continuing to advise smokers not to try to quit using e-cigarettes. There was no qualifying clause, so the American Lung Association is giving this advice even to those smokers who are unable to quit using FDA-approved drugs.

According to the article: "People who had tried e-cigarettes in the previous 12 months were significantly more likely to have quit smoking traditional cigarettes than in previous years. The quit rate remained virtually the same for those who didn’t try e-cigarettes. ... “It’s important to remember that no e-cigarette has yet been found by the FDA to be safe and effective in helping smokers quit,” said Erika Sward, the American Lung Association’s assistant vice president of national advocacy."

The Rest of the Story

The American Lung Association's advice is tantamount to a physician telling a smoker who has failed to quit multiple times using FDA-approved drugs and who expresses interest in e-cigarettes that she should not try vaping and instead should stick to the failed methods in which she has no interest. This is precisely the advice that the American Lung Association is giving to America's smokers. And it is inappropriate and health-damaging advice. I view it as a form of public health malpractice.

Most physicians will advise smokers to quit in whatever way they are able to. Quitting smoking is so difficult, and individuals are so different in what works for them, that physicians should not take any reasonable options off the table. It is one thing for a physician to make recommendations about what methods are most effective based on the evidence. But it is quite another for a physician to tell a patient for whom those methods have failed to continue hitting their head against a wall, rather than trying a new, promising method in which the patient has expressed interest and which has worked successfully for millions of other smokers. This is exactly the medical advice that the American Lung Association is giving.

In my opinion, the American Lung Association should either correct this misinformed and dangerous advice or it should get out of the business of making medical recommendations altogether. With this advice, the American Lung Association is doing far more harm than good. The central principle of medicine and public health is "to do no harm." The American Lung Association is violating this core principle.

The rest of the story is that the American Lung Association is guilty of public health malpractice because despite clear evidence that e-cigarettes have helped millions of smokers quit, it continues to advise smokers not to use this method to quit. Apparently, the American Lung Association is more concerned that smokers quit "the right way" than that they quit. Smoking is apparently a moral issue, not merely a health issue, and if you quit the wrong way, you apparently haven't paid the proper penance for your addiction.